In Numbers 14 we have a description of the children of Israel murmuring before God. This incident is quoted in the New Testament in the context of the memorial emblems and therefore becomes an important exhortation for us as we remember the work of our Lord.

The Hebrew word for “murmur” in Numbers 14:27 means ‘to grumble or complain in the sense of obstinacy’ or ‘to be obstinate in words.’ Perhaps we can comprehend the ugliness of this sort of spirit by imagining a spoilt child stamping their feet and saying, “I don’t want to,” when being asked to do something. The Hebrew word has the idea of being on the way to go somewhere, and then stopping en route. Sometimes it is translated that way in the Old Testament—in terms of a journey being interrupted to stay overnight somewhere.

Hopefully, we can already start to see the picture of faithful brethren travelling together on the road and someone stopping either physically or in words and complaining about the trip (or those that have organised it, or that chose a destination so far away). Murmuring isn’t the same as criticising or getting angry at people. Moses complained, criticised and became angry at the Jewish people that failed to walk in God’s ways, and so did our Lord—but there is no record of Moses or Christ ‘murmuring.’

There are three sections of Scripture where ‘murmuring’ occurs:

  1. Exodus 15–17

The people had just left Egypt in triumph. They were together on their way to the promised land. And then the complaints began to grow:

  • 15:24—They murmured against Moses because there was no water. In reply God turned bitter water into sweet.
  • 16:2—They murmured against Moses for lack of food. In reply God gave them bread from heaven as well as quails.
  • 16:7-9—Their murmuring against Moses was really against God Himself.
  • 16:12—Moses was informed that God hears murmurings; they cannot be hid from Him.
  • 17:3—They murmured, accusing Moses of bringing them out of Egypt to destroy them. In reply God instructed Moses to strike the rock to bring life giving water to their parched lives.
  1. Numbers 14–17

The twelve spies had returned from spying out the land and they gave their evil report, despite holding in their hands the evidence of a good and fruitful land. Once more the complaints began to surface:

  • 14:2,27,29—The people murmured against Moses and Aaron following the reports of the 12 spies. “Would God that we had died in the land of Egypt! or would God we had died in this wilderness!” they cried out. Sadly, they got what they wished for! When God spoke to Moses and Aaron, He lamented: “How long shall I bear with this evil congregation, which murmur against me? I have heard the murmurings of the children of Israel, which they murmur against me.” Even God felt exasperated at their behaviour.
  • 14:36—As for the 10 unfaithful spies, because they had “made all the congregation to murmur against him, by bringing up a slander upon the land,” they were slain by the plague. We learn from this that if we are the primary cause of people murmuring against the goodness of God, then we will feel the extent of God’s wrath upon us.
  • 16:11—Korah, Dathan and Abiram, murmured against Aaron by seeking to usurp his God-appointed position as high priest. “What is Aaron, that ye murmur against him?” asked Moses. As a man, Aaron was just human, but he was also chosen to be the high priest. The rebels had forgotten that God had placed him in that position and therefore they should have submitted to that appointment.
  • 16:41—Despite witnessing a terrifying earthquake and fire streaming from heaven against these wicked men, “on the morrow all the congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron, saying, Ye have killed the people of the Lord.” They had no concept of good and evil. They had no notion that God had passed sentence on these men because of their wickedness. They complained that Moses and Aaron had inflicted this judgment and not God. In response God sent a plague upon them which slew 14,700 instantaneously.
  • 17:5,10—God sought to silence the murmurers once and for all and He did this by causing Aaron’s rod to bud and blossom before the princes of the tribes. In this incident we learn that God actively seeks His people to cease from murmuring. Aaron’s rod that budded was to be kept “for a token against the rebels” as a sign to stop the murmuring (the rod coming back to life being a symbol of the resurrection of Christ, the branch).

These incidences in Numbers 14–17, with the people wanting to turn back to Egypt, are parallel with Christ as recorded in John 6:59–66, where many of the disciples murmured against him for his teaching and turned back.

  1. Joshua 9:18

In this incident Joshua and the elders failed to seek the counsel of Yahweh, and erred by making a covenant with the Gibeonites. As a result of their failure, “all the congregation murmured against the princes.” Why did they murmur? In verse 26 it is recorded that Joshua “delivered them out of the hand of the children of Israel, that they slew them not.” This suggests that the murmuring was related to the inability of the congregation to carry out the commands of God in slaying all the Canaanites. The assembly would brook no exceptions, even though an exception had been made with Rahab and her family earlier. They were unaware of their inconsistencies.

In these three incidents we have a faint shadow of what our Lord had to deal with when he was ministering to the nation. He experienced similar murmurings from the people he preached to in Galilee. They had just been fed in a desert place and when the Master had exhorted them not to seek the bread which perishes, but to seek the bread which comes down from heaven, they began to murmur (John 6:41,43). Eventually this murmuring turned to strife (v52) and further murmuring (v61). Just as the people wanted to turn back to Egypt so many disciples did the same thing and forsook him (v66). That generation was, tragically, no different from the wilderness generation.

In Luke 5:30 “their scribes and Pharisees murmured against his disciples, saying, Why do ye eat and drink with publicans and sinners?” Just like the assembly in Joshua’s day, the people couldn’t see their own failures and inconsistencies. They paraded their own self-righteousness instead of seeing their need to be saved.

The following is an interesting article from the 1886 Christadelphian entitled GRUMBLING:

“Grumbling is very contagious, and its effects are deadly. It is a common complaint, and one which is not escaped by Christadelphians. To overcome this evil should be the earnest endeavour of everyone. Grumblers are not friends of God. They are classed by Jude among the ungodly. It was persistent grumbling that brought in the time of Moses the vengeance of God upon thousands in Israel. In Paul’s letters (1 Cor 10:10; Phil 2:14) grumbling is expressly forbidden. Particularly baneful is the habit when directed towards ecclesial affairs. Those who indulge in it check and hinder where they should diffuse warmth and encourage. They may, perchance, be thoughtless, but they are, nevertheless, unkind. They hamper the strivings of those who are labouring for the truth. Ecclesial work is hard and uphill enough without it being added to by incessant and purposeless complaining about the hall, the journey to it, the speakers, the brethren and sisters generally. It should not be forgotten that Christ is at the head of ecclesial affairs. If there are troubles or things unsatisfactory, it is possible, nay probable, that he may have thus wisely arranged them. This thought alone should quiet the murmuring tongue.”

We have clear teaching in the New Testament against this same type of murmuring:

  • Matthew 20:11—In the parable of the labourers, they murmured against the good master because they wrongly perceived him to be inequitable in his dealings. The Son of God is never unjust. Israel had to realise that the people God calls to service are those who are prepared to labour for whatever is a right reward.

Incidentally, this parable helps illustrate the antidote to murmuring—being thankful and content, happily working together with others and being willing to serve in the knowledge that our Lord will do the right thing by us.

  • Philippians 2:12-15—Paul exhorts us to “do all things without murmurings and disputings.” This is an allusion to the evil behaviour of the wilderness generation. We should instead be “blameless and harmless” as we willingly serve before him.
  • 1 Peter 4:8-10—Peter instructs us to “use hospitality one to another without grudging.” Here he uses the Greek word for murmuring. We shouldn’t let our generosity be tinged with complaining.
  • 1 Corinthians 10:10 – Paul quotes the incident in Numbers 14 where Korah murmured against God’s appointments and later where the whole congregation murmured against God’s judgments. Immediately after making this point Paul speaks about the memorial emblems of the bread and the cup (v16-17).

What does the murmuring of Numbers 14 have to do with the emblems of Christ? Consider the context of 1 Corinthians. Paul is talking about divisions and factions in the ecclesia (1 Cor 1:10; 3:3 and 11:18).

In The Genius of Discipleship, Brother Dennis Gillet writes in a section titled ‘The Unlawful Use of Lawful Things’:

“In 1 Corinthians 10 verse 12, the Apostle Paul says: “All things are lawful for me; but not all things are expedient.” … The word lawful has to do with the king’s highway. It is the opposite of being confined or being imprisoned. It is the freedom to make headway, by any method you may lawfully choose.

But then the Apostle enters a limitation, “but not all things are expedient.” Sadly, the word expedient has been de-valued. Today it has come to mean something which is profitable without too much reference to principle. But in its first intention it too has to do with the king’s highway. It refers to the liberty to advance along the road. Notice in the centre of the word the syllable ped and then think that a ‘pedal’ is a lever operated by the foot; a ‘pedestrian’ is a foot traveller and a ‘pedometer’ is an instrument for measuring the distance traversed by walkers. “Not all things are expedient” means not all things help the journey forward; not all things give wings to the pilgrim’s feet. So when it comes to the exercise of our individuality we have to apply the test of personal progress on the pilgrim way—ours and others’: does it help us forward or hold us back?”

Although the comment above is based on the meaning of the English word ‘expedient,’ it is interesting to note that Strong’s definition of the Greek word sumphero from which the word is translated, means ‘to bear together (ie: contribute).’ This is the antidote to murmuring—to walk through this dreary wilderness together as one, helping and encouraging others, urging them on that road with the glorious kingdom of our God in our view.

1 Corinthians 10 is talking about divisions in the ecclesia; people heading in different directions, and Paul uses the example of the Israelites murmuring to warn us what to avoid. We can’t start dragging our feet, but neither can those in front go charging off without a care for those finding the way difficult. We all go through times in life when we are spiritually strong, when the Word of God is a strong force within us and we willingly give and give and give for the Truth, forging along that road to the kingdom. Like Christ, we set our face like a flint to go to Jerusalem. But then we all go through times when we are not so strong, often through no fault of our own, when the circumstances of life make our cross hard to bear and we stumble under the weight and like our Lord we need a Simon of Cyrene to help us. Will we be there for each other? Let us use our times of strength to help edify and encourage those that are experiencing times of weakness, to ‘bear together’ that load. This spirit will quench any desire we might have to murmur and complain.

Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 says, “Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up.”

Brethren, we all are part of the same spiritual temple, the one body, with Christ as our head. We should be edifying each other, not turning on each other. We should neither be murmuring about the work and service of the Truth, nor grumbling about others’ perceived lack of service. Importantly, we should be careful not to give any of our brethren cause to murmur, by either giving them a burden too heavy or not helping when we can.

There is a strong correlation between united service and the emblems we partake of. Complaining and moaning about our lot in Christ only serves to sever that unity we are seeking at the memorial feast.

Perhaps we too have ‘murmured’ at some time or other against the ecclesial arrangements or ecclesial appointments or even against one particular person. It is a real blessing to appreciate that, just as Moses interceded for Israel and offered to give his life for the people, so too we have an intercessor in our Lord, who was willing to give His life that he might bring many sons to glory, leading us into the promised land.